Preparing students to become global citizens

National Endowment funds pilot program to explore global and local inequalities through humanities lens

By Laurie Loisel 

Mount Holyoke College has been awarded a grant from National Endowment for the Humanities Connections Program to fund a pilot program in which four linked courses will dig deeply into the historical context of inequity. 

The program is called Historical Imagination in the Liberal Arts: Re-Thinking Inequality Through a Global–Local Lens. Mount Holyoke was one of two institutions in Massachusetts to be awarded the grant and one of 18 across the country. 

The program will both put global inequality into context and help develop leadership qualities in students, said Jon Western, dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs. 

“This grant allows us to expand our ability to prepare our students to understand the links between citizenship, social justice, environmental progress and public service, and to take that knowledge to become leaders,” Western said. “We want to help students become thoughtful, ethically informed leaders who can take on the pressing global challenges of our time.” 

Understanding the challenges posed by global inequality is essential to leadership, said Eleanor R. Townsley, director of the College’s Nexus curriculum-to-career signature initiative and manager of the $100,000 three-year NEH grant. 

“The program’s central question is, how do we prepare students to engage as global citizens in a world characterized by inequality?” she said. “We want to foster citizenship to meet the challenges of the emerging world community.” 

Townsley wrote the grant with three other principal investigators: Eva Paus, the Carol Hoffmann Collins Director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives; Catherine Corson, the Leslie and Sarah Miller Director of the Miller Worley Center for the Environment; and Holly Hanson, co-director of the Nexus in development studies. 

“Students need to grasp the ways that prior human actions have created the cultures and institutions we now inhabit so they can see how inherited arrangements shape future possibilities, but do not fully determine them,” the professors wrote in their NEH grant application. “We will borrow and build upon this insight by emphasizing the inextricable interconnections between local and global histories as they condition the future.” 

Four courses to begin with 

Each of the principal investigators will teach a course as part of the program. Students may take one of the four classes, or any combination of them. 

Corson, the Miller Worley Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, will teach a seminar called Environment and Development that will explore environmental inequality by looking at global resources: who has the rights to them, who oversees them and who has access. Focusing on site-specific struggles, students will compare environmental justice conflicts in Costa Rica and the Pioneer Valley. 

The History of Global Inequality course, taught by Hanson, professor of history and Africana studies, will analyze why certain nations are in positions of privilege as compared to others, and will build on students’ experiences in studying abroad or in local community-based learning initiatives. 

Paus, professor of economics, will teach Economic Development in the Age of Contested Globalization, which will delve deeply into a study of both the challenges and opportunities found in a global economy. 

A course on the sociology of organizations that Townsley, professor of sociology, will use case studies to ask students to wrestle with the ethical implications of inequalities and explore the organizational environments that produce those inequalities. 

Several times over the semester, the four classes will meet jointly in an interdisciplinary learning community. The linking of the courses supports the program’s goal of bringing a humanities perspective into non-humanities subjects such as economics and sociology.

“It’s really important to demonstrate the centrality of the liberal arts to practical thinking,” she said. “We want to connect student interest in policy and social justice to central questions in the classical humanities, such as what it means to be human and what our duty is to others.” 

The importance of experiential learning both globally and locally 

This pilot program is yet another avenue for Mount Holyoke students to examine those central questions — the College emphasizes experiential learning and global exploration in a variety of ways, including the Nexus program, study abroad, international internships and research, and the Lynk and Community-Based Learning initiatives. Students in these classes will be guided in various ways through a critical study of global inequality while also reflecting on their own personal histories and cultures. 

“Many students are already focused on how to link their local experiences with global ones,” Townsley said, noting that preparing students for the challenges and needs of a global society is one of the College’s strategic plan priorities. “This program will make this connection even more visible as a pathway.” 

Mount Holyoke is an ideal venue for such a program, Townsley said, given its diversity. About a quarter of the students at the College hold citizenship from another country, and another quarter are domestic students of color. 

“Mount Holyoke is particularly well suited to this line of inquiry because our student body is so diverse and brings a wide range of experience to the classroom discussion, to each other, to the learning community,” she said. 

She said she hopes students will be encouraged to, as she put it, “harness the historical imagination,” while making the connection to the local and global nature of most challenges. 

“It’s not just over there, it’s right here,” Townsley said, gesturing with her hands to demonstrate the interconnection of local–global challenges. “To be a global citizen requires that kind of nuance.” 

The grant, which grew out of two Nexus-funded faculty seminars that helped seed the College’s Global/Local Initiative, also includes funding to help additional faculty create linked courses in the future.

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